Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Should county and Hailey enter into mediation?

Officials could look to Twin Falls County for clues to local dispatch funding dispute

Express Staff Writer

A dispute over who should pay for dispatcher salaries that's similar to the one that has Blaine County and Hailey officials embroiled in a very public squabble took place several years ago in Twin Falls County.

There, the cities of Kimberly and Buhl refused to provide their own funds to Twin Falls County to help pay for dispatcher salaries as part of the Southern Idaho Regional Communications Center. SIRCOMM is a consolidated dispatch system covering Twin Falls, Jerome, Gooding and Lincoln counties.

The disagreement led Twin Falls County officials to begin the process of filing suit against the two cities to get them to pay what the county alleged was their share of the dispatcher salaries. Before they could formally enter into litigation, the county was required by Idaho law to enter into a mediation process proceeded over by the Idaho Emergency Communications Commission.

Blaine County officials have pointed to that mediation process as a possible answer to their dispute, should talks fail to convince Hailey to provide at least some funding. The local disagreement was instigated when the Hailey City Council approved the city's tentative budget for fiscal year 2009 earlier this summer without including funding for the consolidated dispatch system.

After hearing from both sides in the Twin Falls County dispute, the state emergency communications commission made several non-binding recommendations to Kimberly, Buhl and the county.

A copy of those recommendations, released in June 2005, stated that the cities "should contribute to SIRCOMM in accordance with a prescribed formula."

The recommendations went on to say that it is in the best interest of the residents of Twin Falls County and the cities for the consolidated dispatch to continue. In what would seem to be a blow to one of the arguments leveled by Hailey officials, the commission stated that $1-per-phone-line E-911 charges collected to help fund consolidated dispatch cannot be used for dispatcher salaries, but rather, can only go for maintenance and operations.

"The commission believes that some level of general funds must be used for dispatcher salaries," the 2005 letter states. "The commission believes it is fair and appropriate for all county residents to pay their fair share."

The commission also stated that call volume is not an appropriate method of determining amounts owed by each jurisdiction, but should be based on total population.

"The formula should be based on the direct benefits received by the population."

Although those recommendations did not lead to an immediate resolution to the Twin Falls County dispute, follow-up talks have, Twin Falls County Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Jennifer Gose-Eells said Tuesday. Gose-Eells said those talks eventually led to the cities of Kimberly and Buhl agreeing to pay the portion of SIRCOMM dispatcher salaries the county has identified as their share.

"As far as I know, everything is working pretty well right now," she said.

But out of a separate mediation process that took place several years before in 2002, officials from the city of Twin Falls and Twin Falls County agreed to let the city out of SIRCOMM as long as they paid nearly $1 million to the regional dispatch center. The money from Twin Falls helped reduce the debt on a loan secured by SIRCOMM that funded the construction and equipping of the four-county dispatch center.

In exchange for those funds, the city of Twin Falls was able to opt out of the consolidated dispatch system and provide their own dispatching services, Gose-Eells said.

At a public meeting later today at the Old Blaine County Courthouse, officials from the county, Hailey and the other cities in the county will gather to discuss the funding impasse. Hailey officials will present a proposal they've come up with that would have the county place a property tax levy override request on the coming November ballot. Should that countywide levy override be approved, funds would not begin to come in until January 2010. Under the proposal, the funds would help pay the dispatcher salaries.

The Blaine County E-911 dispatch service, which includes GPS mapping and enhanced location capabilities, went into service in December and is housed at the new county jail in Hailey. All cities in the county, as well as the county emergency services, have been assessed fees based on the proportion of emergency calls coming from them each year.

The county has set Hailey's share of the dispatcher salary funding at just over $250,000.

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